“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Richmond As Provincial Capital

Map of the Prize Lots in William Byrd's Lottery, 1768

When William Byrd III and the trustees responsible for liquidating his debts decided on a lottery to be held in 1768 as the best method to dispose of his land west of Shockoe Creek, they divided the land into plots of about 100 acres each, except for a tract immediately west of the creek which straddled the county road and was labelled "town land."

1768 plat of the Town of Shockoe as found among Jefferson's papers with undifferentiated grid pattern. The  pr-eexisting tenements and lots along Shockoe Creek are shown at the right.   
These 400 acres were also numbered and distributed as part of the lottery. As the Town of Shockoe, this area was incorporated into the town of Richmond by the General Assembly in 1769.  The relentless, undifferentiated, grid pattern of the new section continued the lines of the 1737 plan of Richmond and spread from the lowlands along the river up and over the knobs and ravines of Shockoe Hill. Its boundaries, as well as the boundaries of the many lots to the north and west, set the pattern of development that guided the city's growth from that time forward. Previous holdings, or "tenements," of irregular shape make up the previous settlement  of Shockoe's, the original settlement along the west side of the creek. These account for the irregularities of the street layout in the area between the towns of Richmond and Shockoe. The lots along  Main Street on the west side of Shockoe Creek became a popular location for businesses. While many lots undoubtedly sold on top of the hill, the upper section was slow to develop.

The act of 1779 which relocated the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond included a number of unusual directives. In it, and in the execution of the act that followed, the hand of Jefferson can be discerned planning, compromising, and revising a suitably urbane setting for the purposes of the new state government. In order to facilitate the transformation of the town of Richmond into the new state capital, the General Assembly appointed the Directors of Public Buildings. This board of five (later nine) members included Thomas Jefferson as an active member.

"That six whole squares of ground surrounded each of them by four streets, and containing all the ground within such streets, situate in the said town of Richmond, and on an open and airy part thereof, shall be appropriated to the use and purpose of public buildings. On one of the said squares shall be erected, one house for the use of the general assembly, to be called the capitol, which said capitol shall contain two apartments for the use of the senate and their clerk, two others for the us of the house of delegates and their clerk, and others for the purposes of conferences, committees and a lobby, of such forms and dimensions as shall be adopted to their respective purposes: On one other of the said squares shall be erected, another building to be called the halls of justice, which shall contain two apartments for the use of the court of appeals and its clerk, two others for the use of the high court of chancery and its clerk, two others for the use of the general court and its clerk, two others for the used of the admiralty court and its clerk, and others for the uses of grand and petty juries. . . .; and on the same square last mentioned shall be built a publick jail; one other of the said squares shall be reserved for the purpose of building thereon hereafter, a house for the several executive boards and offices to be held in: Two others with the intervening street, shall be reserved for the use of the governour of this commonwealth for the time being, and the remaining square shall be appropriated to the use of the publick market. The said houses shall be built in a handsome manner with walls of brick or stone, and porticoes where the same may be convenient or ornamental, with pillars and pavements of stone."

The squares referred to were six blocks of the existing or proposed town (amounting to twelve acres). The Directors of Public Building were to select the site, which could be in areas already platted or in a new section of two hundred lots “adjacent to such parts of said town as to them shall seem most convenient” (this refers to a section of lots on the north side of present-day Broad Street adjoining the Shockoe plat of 1768. The double measure of land (four acres) associated with the Governor’s House was required to provide domestic areas and for associated paddocks and gardens. The caveat “for the time being” may refer to the presence of a existing dwelling on the lots intended for the governor’s house, that was to be used as a “palace” until a new dwelling could be substituted, which would not occur until 1813. 

On closer examination, it appears that the series of public buildings, and the porticos of stone were intended to form some sort of architectural unity. Closer reading of the directions shown above suggests that the contiguous squares ("six whole squares of ground surrounded each of them by four streets, and containing all the ground within such streets") were intended to form one great square (forum).  The design likely included some sort of hierarchical relation between the buildings and functions, 

Urban historian John W. Reps points out that this is the first time in an American city that “the three major branches of government were given recognition in the physical plan of the city (Tidewater Towns, 927).” Craig A. Reynolds has observed that it was a radical step to call for a "multi-temple district" involving a "standardization" of public buildings. According to Reynolds, Jefferson was likely thinking, somewhat impractically, of the project for a reconstructed Roman forum shown in Palladio's Book Four. His copy described the forum as a central square or market surrounded by a two-tiered continuous portico giving access to bankers' offices, with a curia (senate ) and basilica (courthouse) on either side. Similarly, Livy described the forum as a central square combining commercial and governmental functions in Book I: he mentions a prison and senate house overlooking the forum and "also spaces round the forum were assigned to private individuals for building on; covered walks and shops were erected" [Craig A. Reynolds, "Jefferson's Temples of Liberty on the James and the Potomac," paper delivered at the Virginia Commonwealth University Architectural History Symposium, 2012]. 

Book III, Plate XV, Leoni Edition of Palladio's Four Books showing the "Squares and Forums or open places and Markets of the Romans." The forum or market is in the center surrounded by the porticos sheltering the
offices of bankers, the basilica (court) is to the left, and the curia (senate house) to the left.

By including a market in the grouping, Jefferson may have been hoping to place the three specialized government buildings, legislative, judicial, and executive, in direct relation to a public market square on a relatively level, but as-yet unselected hilltop site. It may even have been his initial intention to give it a unified form based on the Palladian forum, much as his design for the University of Virginia would to be linked by a colonnade, but here to be lined with the commercial lots of private individuals. 

The Halle au Blé at Paris
That Jefferson had imagined the market as an architecturally distinguished structure is clear from his first thought on viewing the great new glass-lighted dome of the covered courtyard at the Meal Market (Halle au Blé) of Paris in 1786. In a famous letter to Maria Cosway he imagined it as a model for the market in Richmond: 'My visit to Legrand & Molinos had publick utility for it's object. A market is to be built in Richmond. What a commodious plan is that of Legrand & Malinas: especially if we put on it the noble dame of the Halle aux bleds." 

Likely in the summer of 1780. Jefferson sketched a plan for a "Hall of Justice," a two-story rectangular building measuring 70' wide and 90' long that was intended to be one of the three principal state buildings.  Although not shown, a portico at the main entry would have given the building the "cubical" form he often referred to when discussing temple architecture. Entrance was to be through a two-story, square central stair hall inside the door, flanked by offices and smaller rooms. The two principal courtrooms were placed on each side of a passage that extends to the rear pot the building. The second floor had a similar plan. The "hall of justice" appears to have been conceived as a temple form building only a little smaller than the hall for the legislature, suggesting that it was intended to have taken up a flanking position in a symmetrical  tripartite arrangement, on the opposite side from the "State House" for executive boards and committees and representing the three parts of the government.    

As reported by Reps, in 1780 the General Assembly responded to recommendations of the directors by a new act that designated Shockoe Hill as the site of the new “capitol, halls of justice, state house for the executive boards, and house for the governor.” This “open and airy part” of the town had been laid out in lots in 1768 and was already sparsely occupied. A number of old, irregular tenements, mostly on the eastern slope of the hill, and all the streets and squares were to be regularized, unless “by varying the said intervals” (such as is seen today in Governor Street) “more favorable ascents may be procured up the hill.” The location for the public market had been reconsidered and was now to be located below the said hill, on the same side of Shockoe Creek [a block west of where it was built on the opposite, east side of the creek]. In addition, the streets of Shockoe Hill, which were continuations of the undifferentiated Mayo plan of 1737, then all of the same 66-foot width regardless of importance or location, were all to be widened “to a breadth, not less than eighty, or more than one hundred and twenty feet.” Streets were to be laid out “whether straight or curved” to provide access to the tops of the hills from the valley below.

Early 19th-century map (Young, c. 1809)

The uniform street grid was adjusted by the Directors of Public Building in a more subtle way than that mandated by the statute. H Street, the major street on the hill that received the traffic from the old town below by way of the curving County Road, was widened to 120 feet by removing land from the lots on each side. Its unique scale prompted its renaming as Broad Street in later years, Interestingly, H Street was labeled Main Street on a plat of c 1787, indicating its continuity with the principal route through the older sections of the lower town [Richmond City Legislative petition 11 Nov. 1791]. The parallel streets G and I (Grace and Marshall) were to be widened to 100 feet. All the remaining streets, as shown by dotted lines on Jefferson’s drawing of the public squares in 1780, were to be enlarged to 80 feet as directed by the assembly. However, in actuality, Grace and Marshall were not widened as shown.

Jefferson plan of three public squares, 1780, showing
Capitol and Bank streets as laid out at top and bottom.

Jefferson himself traced a proposed plan of the town on Shockoe Hill in 1780. He overlaid the existing undifferentiated grid with the new creation of three squares between Franklin and Grace streets and between 9th and 12th streets. These were appropriated for the public buildings with an addition of several lots to the east along the edge of the hill east of Twelfth Street. A revised plan shows a new approach not unlike what was finally built. Grace and Franklin streets are blocked east of Ninth. These vacated streets are added to the total size of the public land and new streets created out of the inner lots in the blocks to the north and south. The public land is consolidated into “three separate parcels,” probably since the commercial function (public market) had been removed from the plan for a modern version of the forum. This would have permitted the separate control of the three squares crowning the hill by each of the three branches of government.

In spite of the irregular terrain, Jefferson shows and describes in a proposal, three elongated public squares separated by widened segments of Tenth and Eleventh streets. The southern half of each of the parcels consisted, however, of steeply sloping terrain that completely precluded the actual extension of the intervening streets shown by Jefferson, so it was inevitable that the parcels, barely outlined on maps for decades, should be conflated into one large square, neatly edged on the north, south and west, but irregular on the east where the main route, the “county road,” climbed the steep slopes of the hill.

While the three squares are not labeled, the central square, occupying the most dramatic and advanced knoll above the river, was to become the site of the Capitol. It is possible that Jefferson intended an advanced central legislative building to be flanked by the Halls of Justice on the west and an Executive Building (Council Chamber was the name given to this structure among the temporary government buildings). As the costs of building and the limitations of revenue became apparent, Jefferson was forced to consent to the combination of all the branches in a single structure, the Capitol of 1785-88. At the same time the three squares were combined into a single "Capitol Square."

R.B. James, Map of Richmond, Henrico Co., c. 1804, showing area of the Capitol Square and the angled route of the county road around it to the east and north.
While his direct involvement with its urban design had ended with his second term as governor in 1781, the city had not strayed too far from his vision as it grew. 

Capitol Square as laid out by Maximilian Godefroy, from R. Young's Map, ca. 1817.
The Capitol was deliberately placed to be seen in the Virginia landscape. Architect Robert Mills understood its power in the landscape: "I remember the impression it made on my mind when first I came in view of it coming from the South. It gave me an idea of the effect of those Greek temples which are the admiration of the world" [Fiske Kimball, American Architecture, 1928]. Fiske Kimball recognized in 1915 the significant of the Virginia Capitol as a "landmark of the first importance" in the "development of modern classical architecture." 

Charles Brownell, in an overview of the Capitol published in 2002, describes new work by his students at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University and others who have established provocative connections between the building and its historical context in a number of directions. They established that the temple-form building related to well-known use of temples for senate houses in Imperial Rome. Others have shown that the first study that placed the Capitol in a temple-form building dated to the early- to mid-1770s, well before the actual project was begun for a new capitol. When the Directors sent floor plans to Jefferson for his use in Paris, they showed a rectangular  building with porticos on four sides.

In addition, the placement of the "cubical" temple-form building on a prominent hill above the city was shown to be closely associated with Palladian precepts for the location of temples (and the original Capitol, the most significant place in the city of Rome, a temple to Jupiter that stood above the Roman forum).  Finally, a list of four temples that Jefferson associated with the building during the design process added to the understanding of his goals. He intended the Capitol to serve as a museum of the orders to be used as models by the citizens in improving the architecture of the city and state, and he planned to use the columnar orders on the exterior and interior to make a complete "suite" of orders for that purpose.  The interior of the building, including the rotunda and dome, differs greatly from Jefferson's intentions and appears to be the work of architect/builder Samuel Dobie, who was charged with executing the incomplete sets of drawings [Charles E. Brownell, Introduction to the 2002 Edition, Fiske Kimball, The Capitol of Virginia: A Landmark of American Architecture (Richmond VA: Library of Virginia, 2002) xv-xxxix].    

The public square was, as a result, placed in an anti-nodal position away from commercial activity, although Jefferson's original idea seemed to have intended it for a commercial center by including a market. On the contrary, as built on its "open and airy" site, it occupies a distinctly anti-nodal position, rather like the church of 1742 on the top of the corresponding hill to the east. Maximilian Godefroy, a French-born partner of Latrobe’s, applied French formalism to organize the ravines and eroded gullies of the hillside site. His terraces, tree-lined allees, and curved walks imposed a garden-like imprint of order on what had hitherto been almost a desert.

Capitol Square, c. 1850
The official placement of the market along Shockoe Creek in 1782 recognized the reality of the city's composite form and the inevitable separation of state and city functions. The area around the square grew up to be a quiet place of deliberation and reflection far from the business of commercial Main Street below and the constant traffic of Broad Street to the north.

Appropriately, when the city grew sufficiently large to warrant a specialized government building or courthouse of its own it was strategically placed to mediate between the commercial rough-and-tumble of Broad Street and the cultivated and artificial landscape of the Public Square. Rather than provide a civic square for the new building, as was often done, it was oriented toward the public square that already held the Capitol.  Robert Mills provided the design for the new City Hall, which was begun in 1816 and first occupied in 1818. The carefully placed building took its place at the urban scale. It fronted on Capitol Street on axis with the Capitol and stood between it and Broad Street.


  1. Actually, there is no documentary evidence (other than Godefroy's own overheated claims) that he had any part of the design of the Richmond City Hall.

    The discovery of the original plan of the building (now in the collection of the Library of Virginia), combined with a search of the Common Council minutes that never mentioned Godefroy at all, and comparison of the MIlls plan and the few photographs of the building all indicate that Mills was the author of this the City Hall.

    Godefroy's claims have been repeated so often they have become the de facto history of the City Hall, but the fact is something very different. I am sorry to see Godefroy's false claims appear on Urban Scale Richmond.

  2. Thanks- Claymont, for pointing that out- Godefroy was not the first architect to engage in resume embellishment! We had dimly perceived that Mills was responsible for the final product but had not gotten our thoughts fully organized on the building. Our article on that building has yet to be written and this is the right time to begin. We have corrected the text to reflect Mills' involvement. Do you have some research you could share with us?

  3. Yes, I do have an article I wrote for ARRIS on the subject of Mills' City Hall. I'll get in touch with one of our mutual friends for your email address and ship it off to you.